In Ohio's urban school districts, one in 446 students has been hit by a car. In suburban districts, it's one in 1,473.

When Ohio’s state senate convened a committee on school safety last March, the focus was on preparedness to face a school shooter like the one who killed 20 students and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But one state representative said that the concern over the possibility of such an attack was obscuring a much more common risk that Ohio’s children face every day: being hit by a car on the way to or from school.

"There are a lot more things that impact school safety than these big splashy incidents that get national attention," said Ohio State Senator Frank LaRose of Copley Township, an Akron suburb. "The walk to school is statistically more dangerous."

LaRose was quoted in a extensive article by Doug Livingston in the Akron Beacon Journal that details just how dangerous that walk to school is – and how the risk to children living in Ohio’s cities, many of them African American, is greater by a factor of three than it is for mostly white suburban kids:

In Ohio, African-American children and those from lower-income families are far more likely to be hit by cars than white children in the suburbs, according to a Beacon Journal analysis of Ohio Department of Transportation figures, and the reason is simple: The state has created inequality in transportation to school.

At least 1,256 minors between the ages of 5 and 17 years old have been struck by a vehicle in Ohio’s eight most populous counties since 2008. Unlike students who attend suburban school districts, where parents or buses are more likely to provide safe transit to school … many of those 1,256 students had no alternative but to walk busy streets.

The state offers no funding assistance for children who walk less than two miles — a trek that could take 40 minutes for a young child at a healthy pace and with no stopping for traffic.

In Ohio’s largest urban school districts — Akron, Canton, Columbus, Toledo, Cincinnati, Dayton, Cleveland and Youngstown — students were 3.3 times more likely to be hit by a vehicle than in surrounding suburban districts.

The numbers revealed in the Beacon Journal analysis are grim: in those urban school districts, one in 446 students has been hit by a car. In suburban districts, the comparable number is one in 1,473. In Akron, eight children were struck by drivers in February 2010 alone.

As Livingston, the paper’s education reporter, points out, the state of Ohio has systematically de-funded school buses over the past five years in reaction to the financial crisis and the state’s shrinking budget:

An annual $50 million bus purchase program was suspended in 2010 by former Gov. Ted Strickland after the economic collapse of 2008. The program helped school districts maintain their fleets.

Three years later, neither Gov. John Kasich nor the legislature has moved to reinstate the program, even as revenues this year are running $1 billion ahead of a year ago and Ohio Department of Education data show the fleet to be at a breaking point for costly repairs.

The state’s transportation subsidy, writes Livingston, has gone up only 5 percent since 2004, hardly keeping pace with the 140 percent increase in fuel prices. New funding approved by the Ohio House Senate has been marked for private and charter schools rather than the public school system as a whole.

The figures in Ohio reveal a distressing pattern. Walking or biking to school is clearly unsafe in many of the state’s communities. That in itself is bad enough, when we know the benefits of active transportation for children’s health, and how getting to school under their own power helps them to concentrate when class starts.

But to compound the problem, the state is counting on parents to subsidize their kids’ safe travel by chauffeuring their children in a private vehicle. As for the urban children whose families are too poor to own cars or who can’t drive them to school for other reasons? Well, they just have to take their chances on streets designed for to move ever-more vehicles ever faster, and where cities like Akron are removing traffic lights for the convenience of drivers. In dark winter months, kids often face sidewalks that haven’t been cleared of snow, forcing them into the streets.

The consequences are real and life-changing. Livingston writes about one teenager who was so traumatized when she was struck by the driver of a pickup truck, suffering a concussion and multiple pelvic fractures, that she required months of counseling before she could cross the street again without fear. 

In another article, he tells the story of an 11-year-old student struck by a driver who jumped the curb to get around another vehicle stopped at a light. The crossing guard pushed the boy out of the car’s path, but the child still sustained a concussion from the sign that was knocked down and hit him on the head – a sign reading “Child Crossing.”

Safe travel to school should be the right of every child, regardless of income. The streets should be designed, maintained, and policed in order to provide safe passage. And if the trip on foot can’t be made safely, kids should have access to school bus transportation.

In Ohio’s affluent suburban communities, local businesspeople and school officials are leading the way in creating models for safe bike-to-school routes.

Meanwhile, Ohio is turning its back on inner-city children for whom the walk to school is fraught with peril. It’s as if, despite the state’s much-trumpeted new school safety initiative, with its focus on emergency plans and safety drills, lawmakers simply don’t care about the very real four-wheeled threats so many kids face every day.

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